SBBT Stop: Bennett Madison

Bennett Bennett Madison has published two novels for young adults, Lulu Dark Can See Through Walls and Lulu Dark and the Summer of the Fox, and recently finished his third YA book, The Blonde of the Joke (which, as he will soon tell you, is not a Lulu book but shares some similarities). Basically, he’s awesome.

GB: Okay, the first question I always ask is about process, because the Shaken & Stirred readers, they love the write porn. What’s your process like when you’re working on a novel? (You can start anywhere you like, getting the idea, actually beginning to write, trapped beneath a deadline, etcetera.)

BM: I’m pretty bad at talking about my writing process. I wake up really late and laze around in cafes all day hoping to get something done. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. I have tivo and I’m pretty good at video games. If anyone could actually see how I spend my days, I think they would be horrified. Everything about my lifestyle would be a total mortification to my hardworking Puritan ancestors. But while I used to feel guilty about it I’ve stopped. Who knows what is going to inspire me? If I can’t get anything done, why not watch Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School at 2 in the afternoon? Maybe it will give me an idea. And I do work hard–it just might not look like it to the outside observer. But I’ve managed to write 3 or 4 books by now, and I never, ever thought I’d be able to do that.

As for the actual writing itself, i usually start with something like a riff. That’s the easiest way to get into a story, to me, even if it usually ends up getting cut later. The Blonde of the Joke started, seven years ago, as a two page, sort of stream of consciousness riff on the joys of shoplifting, as told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl. It had nothing to do with anything, really, it was just sort of a silly meditation. It’s gone through about a million different iterations since then, and I have no idea what ever happened to those first two pages that I wrote sitting on a rock outside my dorm during the first month of my freshman year of college.

But often, if I’m stuck, I’ll just say to myself that I’m going to write something sort of long and baroque about whatever totally quotidian thing I’m thinking about at that moment, like dogs or cell phone ringtones or whatever. Usually it’s crap, but if I’m lucky it will lead to something. And sometimes it turns out pretty funny. I just wrote a short story that’s basically twenty pages of riffing, and I think it’s actually one of my favorite things I’ve written in awhile.

GB: Colleen Mondor, oh she of Chasing Ray, has said that mysteries are far underrepresented in YA, and that the ones that are there are mostly fantasy novels. Lulu Dark is a clear exception to this. She is a sharp-dressed, smooth-talking girl detective for the modern age. How did you come to write these mysteries? Have you always loved the girl detective?

BM: I wouldn’t say I have always been a huge fan of girl detectives, but, growing up, I just liked anything genre. I also liked anything serialized, or anything that had many installments. What this means now is that I have pretty much equal affection for Nancy Drew, The Babysitter’s Club, Oz, and the X-Men. (My lifelong ambition is still to write the X-Men. Marvel editors–call me!)

But although I’m pretty conversant in Nancy Drew, I don’t know much about the other girl detectives, or mysteries in general. And I still can’t tell the difference between the two Hardy Boys. Are they twins? I can’t remember. This is totally off the subject, but a couple of years ago, I found a Trixie Belden book in a cafe. I think it had been published in the seventies. It must have been some kind of "New Adventures…" business. Anyway, I flipped through it, and it was so insane. It was all about Trixie Belden discovering a marijuana farm. The page I happened to flip to featured a long debate with Trixie and I think her dad about whether pot should be legalized. I couldn’t believe it. Trixie Belden! Can you imagine? If anyone knows the title of this book, I would love to know. I should have just stolen it from the cafe, really. Now I can’t remember what the title was, but I think it had a scuba diver on the cover.

I wish I had been allowed to have drugs in Lulu. In the first Lulu book, Berlin Silver was supposed to die from some kind of ecstasy freak-out, but my editors wouldn’t allow it. They wanted her to be struck by lightning instead, but I thought that seemed too absurd even for Lulu. So we compromised on an allergic reaction to pork rinds, which is unlikely but at least kind of amusing. It would have been a totally different book if we had gone with the ecstasy thing, right? In the beginning, I sort of envisioned the books as being a bit grittier than they turned out in the end.

I’m getting off track now–what I am meaning to say on the mystery subject is that I came to write Lulu because I was desperate to write a book, and I heard that the powers that be in YA publishing were trying to beef up their mystery lists. Though I’d never really thought about doing a mystery before that, I thought it would be a fun opportunity to do a sort of send-up/homage to all the genre stuff I read growing up, particularly Nancy Drew. Along the way, it sort of became something different, but that’s how I came to write mysteries. It was pretty accidental… just a situation of seizing an opportunity.

Writing mysteries is kind of a pain though because it’s hard to make everything make sense. And I’m not a natural when it comes to things like twists, red herrings, etc. On the other hand, the good thing about writing mysteries is that the story really does drag you along, which is nice. Whenever I hit a wall, I would just remember something that Jennifer Garner said, when she was being interviewed about her role in the amazing film MR MAGOO with Leslie Nielsen. "This is a great movie. There are so many foolish characters, and everything happens!" A friend of mine told me of this quote and I think it’s the best thing I ever heard. With a mystery, when you get stuck, you can just pop in another foolish character, and make something else happen. By the end, if you’ve done a good job, EVERYTHING will have happened.

GB: The Lulu books are full of the kind of witty banter I can’t get enough of. Are you a fan of the old screwball movies? If not, where did that conversational rhythm come from (or are there other pop culture influences that are more important to you)? It matches the books perfectly, in any case.

BM: This is such a nice thing of you to say. I can’t say that the style came from screwball comedies though, at least not directly, because I have a notorious aversion to movies. I especially don’t like good ones. (I do, however, like television a whole lot.)

Probably I was inspired to write this kind of dialogue by someone else who was herself inspired by screwball comedies, but I truthfully can’t really say where it comes from. I am just into quick-witted, fast-talking, prickly ladies. I wish I had a better answer to this question, because it’s a good one.

GB: You’ve mentioned before, I believe, that your next book The Blonde of the Joke is going to be mucho different than the Lulu books. Can you tell us a little bit about it? Pretty please.

BM: THE BLONDE OF THE JOKE is going to be really good I think! It is very different from Lulu, but the books are actually related in a roundabout way. Years ago, when I got the tip that publishers were looking for mysteries, I decided that I was just going to take the usual characters that I liked to write about, and transplant them into a mystery-world. A whole lot changed over the course of pitching, developing, and writing the books, but at the core, Daisy and Lulu, and even Charlie, are in some ways alternate-universe versions of characters i had been writing about for years–including Francie, Val, and Max, who are the main characters of THE BLONDE OF THE JOKE.

Anyway, the book is about two teenage girls who hang out the mall and become master shoplifters. Their goal is to eventually shoplift ever ything in the world. But the shoplifting stuff is really just a backdrop and a way of talking about what the book is really about, which is the petty betrayals that make up so many close relationships. It’s about the very bloody rise and fall of a teenage friendship.

When I first started writing it, I considered it a complete 180 from Lulu. And while it’s much darker, and not a mystery, and a million other differences, I think you’ll definitely recognize characters who are much more fucked up versions of Charlie and Daisy. Lulu herself is probably less apparent, but there’s a character who bears some similarity.

There’s also one chapter that basically could have come straight from Lulu. I didn’t realize it until I was rereading, and I had to laugh. You’ll know it when you come to it, unless I decide that it doesn’t work and cut it.

GB: I believe we have a shared obsession in Sassy magazine (obession in the mildest, best possible sense of the word) and a (not unrelated likely) sympathy for Courtney Love. Thoughts on either or both of these things?

BM: Oh, yay, I love that you are a Sassy and Courtney fan. It’s like a secret tribe.

I don’t have a lot to say about Sassy that hasn’t already been said, except that I recommend checking out Blair magazine’s online tribute, as well as Marisa Meltzer and Kara Jesela’s awesome new book on the topic. That book made me want to cry not just for Sassy, but also that I wasn’t in New York in the early nineties. But even watching the first Real World makes me teary-eyed about that. The fashion! The music! The drugs! Eric Nies!

As for Courtney…

Someone needs to write a true and serious book about this person. (I know the Poppy Z Brite version is considered the bible of Courtney, but it was written so long ago!)

I’ve said this before on my blog, but I consider Ms. Love to be, in some ways, the Forrest Gump of "alternative" music. It seems like before she was famous herself she was always lurking at the edge of some frame. She was part of so many different, important scenes. The fact that she was actually IN Sid & Nancy really seals the deal to me.

Of course, I also think that Courtney’s totally talented. There’s a lot of debate about how much of her music can really be attributed to her and how much is the work of Kurt and Billy Corgan, etc. And while I mostly think it’s bogus and kind of sexist to insist that she doesn’t write her own stuff, I also think it doesn’t matter. One way or another, whether it’s by writing it herself or by cultivating genius in those she surrounds herself with, Courtney clearly has some kind of crazy talent. And I’m constantly amazed by her ability to be smart and funny and compelling no matter how drunk or otherwise wacked out she may be.

I’m also fairly certain that she’s as much or more of a nightmare as people make her out to be. But I think she fills (or filled) a very important role in the pop firmament. I really do think the reason people have such a strong reaction to her is because she so totally hews to the whole goddess mother/destroyer archetype. Don’t you think she totally seems like one of those bitchy Greek goddesses? Her whole persona touches on something pretty primal. I sound so Sarah Lawrence right now.

But I forgot the best best part about Courtney Love: the fact that she is Paula Fox’s SECRET GRANDDAUGHTER, and maybe Marlon Brando’s too. This just reinforces my position that she is some kind of weird mythical foundling creature.

GB: What are some books you’ve been loving lately?

BM: I always feel guilty that I’m not reading as much as I should, but right now I’m working on FREAK SHOW by James St. James and it is hell of awesome so far. It’s hilarious. I think he is really breaking new ground in terms of amusing use of boldface, CAPITAL LETTERS, and exclamation points. I know that sounds like I’m being sarcastic but I’m totally not. I have a feeling the book may take a totally dark turn soon, which I am also looking forward to.

Visit today’s other SBBT sites:

Laura Ruby at Miss Erin
Shaun Tan at A Fuse #8 Production
Chris Crutcher at Bookshelves of Doom
Holly Black at The YA YA YAs
Kazu Kibuishi at Finding Wonderland
Christopher Golden at Bildungsroman
David Brin at Chasing Ray
Kirsten Miller at Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Sara Zarr at Big A, little a
Sonya Hartnett at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

11 thoughts on “SBBT Stop: Bennett Madison”

  1. Fantastic interview–really fun to read! Thanks for this!!
    I’m looking forward to The Blonde of the Joke!

  2. Great interview. The answer to the process question is awesome (just read another great one about process in another interview, too — what a good interview day). And how much do I love him for praising “quick-witted, fast-talking, prickly ladies”? A lot.
    You’ve added to my HUGE to-be-read pile, but I forgive you. These titles sound great.

  3. Oh Bennett – I simply adore Bennett. I’m so excited to read his new book because there is nobody who writes like him. He has the best sense of humor but never goes over the top with it.
    Everyone should read his Lulu books – go – READ THEM!

  4. The things I’ve learned today about Courtney Love! I mean, I’m not surprised she was in Sid and Nancy, but Paula Fox’s granddaughter? I am totally weirded out. (But I’m also firmly in the “Courtney Love is a skank” camp…sorry!)
    Oh, and I enjoyed the interview, too! 🙂 Lulu Dark has definitely moved up on the reading list.

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